When I was a kid my mum never even asked me what I wanted in my lunch box. It didn’t matter, it was pretty much like what my friends had, always included a sandwich and a bit of bruised fruit. We redundantly traded the lack lustre fare that was so staple that, even now, I can smell the common aroma of a hundred plastic lunchboxes opened in unison each long gone day of my schooling.
And the situation didn’t change at home where we all ate the same foods. This almost always included three vegetables and a cheap cut of meat. The height of culinary enlightenment was to find that our friends ate sausages on Thursday and Stew on Tuesdays when we had come to believe that these were the sacred offerings of Mondays and Wednesdays. Salt and bread were de rigueur and the appearance of chicken would signify that it was Christmas or someone’s birthday. We didn’t eat garlic and our parents didn’t drink wine. At the age of twenty someone offered me squid as an entrée and I battled to disguise the fact that I had only ever used it for fish bait.
All the goods in our pantries came in a fairly standard range of two although I remember that tomato sauce (Rosella), curry powder (Keens) and cornflour (Nurses) were the same brands wherever one went in my little town. Curry, I hasten to add, was never actually served to us –the powder was almost exclusively for use in curried egg sandwiches.
Choice was not part of my childhood. My opinion was not sought, my destiny was ordained and my menu prescribed.
So I do marvel at times at my own children’s sophisticated level of discrimination in their consumption of everything from peanut butter to footwear. I also understand those poor lost souls of my generation, usually men, wandering the supermarkets with creased brows and hooked closely to their mobile phones. Typical conversations go like this: “Helen, it’s me. I’m in the tuna section…Eh…The tuna section at the shop…near the sardines…Yeah, I’ve got the fibre enriched white bread with Omega 3 already…Large slice? Yep….Helen, I can’t find tuna in brine, will spring water do?…No? Well, I can’t find John West in anything but spring water…What? Near the tuna with capers and garlic or the one with Thai lemongrass? Got it! It was just next to the tinned tomatoes section….No, the ones with basil from Italy…No, Helen, I got the chopped tomatoes with onion…You never said you wanted the ones with basil…” And I know, I just know, that even with the phone and a direct link to his wife, this guy is going to get it wrong. He didn’t even confirm what size tin or if it should be salt reduced. But for now, he has that happy look that people get when they complete a multiple-choice exam and are positive they’ve nailed it.
So I grew up not expecting much choice and by happy coincidence, not being offered any. Which is why I love visiting America. Americans will not understand this because they are simply used to it and expect it. Choice is everywhere and choice is good. Here is a conversation I had in Nebraska in 2000 (it closely resembles a similar conversation about a ham sandwich that I had at a restaurant in Schenectady 5 years later).
“You ready to order, Sir?” asks my waitress, Lisa.
“Yes, please. I’ll have the Classic Breakfast (listed as 2 eggs and bacon or sausage).”
I pause. She lifts her pencil. “With sausages,” I add quickly.
“And how do you want your eggs?”
“Sunny side up, thanks.”I can see that she has noticed my accent and she asks kindly, “Do you know what that means? It’s kinda soft, uncooked, like in the picture.”
“No, that’s fine. Sunny side up will be good.”
“OK, do you want grits or hash browns with that?”
“What actually are grits?” I ask.The answer to this is somewhat incomplete with vague allusions to an unhelpful coloured picture on the wall and similes that only add further ambiguity.
“I’ll have hash browns, please.”
“Would you like cheese melted on the hash browns?”
“OK. That sounds good.”
“And what sort of toast?”
“White or wheat?”
“Only one more question; coffee or tea?”
“I’ll have coffee, please.”
“I’ll be right back, sir.”And she is. With agreeable coffee, two perfectly cooked eggs and four small sausages leaning against a pile of fried, shredded potato with orange cheese melted through it.“You enjoy,” smiles Lisa.
And I do, grateful for the smiling face and honest plate before me. All this choice and it’s only breakfast time! If this meal and the choices it involved had occurred in my childhood it could only have meant one thing – it was my parents wedding anniversary and we were all at the local roadhouse for a special night out.